The Sprite and the Gardener Review

Creators: Rii Abrego & Joe Whitt

Publisher: Oni Press

“And things are still just fine. More or less.”

This is how Abrego & Whitt set up The Sprite and the Gardener. This book has been described as “gentle fantasy” which means a fantasy story that doesn’t involve fighting or violence of any kind. If you’ve read The Tea Dragon Society, then you’re familiar with this genre.

In The Sprite and the Gardener we learn that sprites used to be the caretakers of all flora, but then humans took over as the keepers of gardens. So, what are the sprites to do? This story follows Wisteria who wants to help humans tend to their gardens. Will things work out? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

You could read this story at a surface level, but if you look closer you’ll find a deeper story. Abrego & Whitt weave a story that teaches the theme that “Change can be good.” That just because something is different doesn’t mean that it’s bad. As this is a quick read, I could see children reading it multiple times to get to deeper interpretations of the text.

The character designs of the sprites are flora-influenced. I imagine aspiring illustrators doodling their own designs of sprites after begin inspired by Abrego & Whitt’s characters. What would a tulip inspired sprite look like? A dandelion sprite?

Abrego & Whitt are also creative when it comes to page layout. They are thoughtful in the way they use irregular panel shapes and borderless panels to infuse scenes with energy and emotion. Their choice of frames also help make their pages dynamic. They shift quickly from long-distance, medium, and close-up shots of moments. I hope to see more work by both of these creators soon.

“But times have changed since then. And things are just fine. In fact, they’re better than ever.

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: gentle fantasy
  • Units of Study: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Grades: 3rd Grade, 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade

Teaching: Previewing with the Lens of Genre

Previewing is a habit that helps readers set themselves up to read. Previewing allows us to come to the text with predictions of how we think the story might go or what we might learn. As we read on, we confirm or revise our predictions.

Graphic novels are frequently grouped all together even though there may be a myriad of genres represented. By adding the lens of genre to a reader’s preview, they are setting themselves up to bring their literary knowledge of genre with them into the text.

Teaching: Harmonizing Visual Storytelling & Art

While visiting one of my partner schools, I worked with teachers on helping writers to be more purposeful with the text they include in their graphic novels.

The ideas I share in the video could be helpful for writers to think about in the planning stages (thumbnails & script) or this could be purposeful revision work.

Writers SHOULD NOT be adding text boxes, speech balloons, or thought bubbles just to have more writing in their graphic novel. More words doesn’t make a graphic novel stronger. Not every panel needs words. In fact, there are even some wordless graphic novels.

If you’re teaching a unit on writing graphic novels, let me know how it’s going by either emailing me, 111tripleseven@gmail.com, or on twitter, @writtenbyhand.

Class Act Review

Creator: Jerry Craft

Publisher: Quill Tree Books & Harper Alley

I’m going to be honest. I held off reading Class Act. I didn’t hold off because I wasn’t interested or I didn’t think it would be good. I held off, because I knew that with the success of New Kid tons of people were going to check it out even without me hyping it. That being said, I’m so glad I finally did read it.

If you’re not familiar with this book, Class Act is the follow-up to Jerry Craft’s Newberry Medal, Kirkus Prize, Coretta Scott King Author Award winning book New Kid. New Kid is a realistic fiction story based on the experiences of Craft and his two sons as they attended private schools.

In Class Act, Craft tells a story that provides a different perspective than found in most literature. I realize this is a “different” perspective for me, because I’m a white man. I can just imagine how powerful it is for young students of color to read this book and feel seen. I imagine it’s similar to how I felt reading Flamer.

Class Act has a wide cast of characters which create a rich world for Craft to tell his story in. You could read Class Act without having read New Kid, but why would you not want to read New Kid?!

My favorite bit of cartooning with Class Act are the comics that the character Jordan creates. These “kid-created” comics provide a way for Jordan to reflect on the events of the book and share his thinking. This is a powerful storytelling technique that adds more depth to Jordan.

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Units of Study: Realistic fiction, Social Issues
  • Grades: 4th Grade, 5th Grade, Middle School

Mentors for Graphic Novel Writing: Arc Dogs & Broken Summer

After reading Maker Comics: Make a Comic! I checked out JP Coovert’s website to see what else he had to offer and I’m SO glad I did! I think that both Arc Dogs and Broken Summer could be incredible mentor texts for anyone taking on graphic novel writing with their students right now or even next school year.

You can see me talk about these books in the video below or read the write up underneath.

These comics will be accessible mentors for kids for a few reasons.

  1. They’re only about 20 pages long. This length feels less forboding than using a 100 page graphic novel as a mentor.
  2. They’re black & white. It will be wonderful for kids to see that a comic book does not have to have color to be engaging and clearly tell a story.
  3. The story focuses on four characters. Sometimes when kids are first starting their graphic novels, they want to create these epics that involve a cast of 20! Beginning with a more manageable cast might support writers in creating a clearer narrative.
  4. JP Coovert expertly uses the tools of the medium to tell this engaging story; he plays around with fonts to give characters voice, he changes up panel shapes to create a sense of action, and his cartooning creates personality in his characters through their facial expressions and body language.

I would guess Arc Dogs would be considered book one, so read it first. Broken Summer is an anthology of seven short stories that you read on their own, but together create a continuous narrative using the characters from Arc Dogs.

Written by Hand,

Eric

Maker Comics: Draw a Comic! Review

Creator: JP Coovert

Publisher: First Second Comics

When Andrea Bell mentioned that her next project was an installment of the Maker Comics, I realized I had never read anything from the Makers Comics series. This was something I needed to rectify immediately. I scanned over the topics included in the Makers Comics series; Fix a Car!, Bake Like a Pro!, Grow a Garden! and then I spied Draw a Comic! I think the ending writes itself.

Makers Comics: Draw a Comic! by JP Coovert was a delight to read. As I was reading this book, I had Melissa Stewart’s Five Kinds of Nonfiction in mind. I don’t have Melissa’s expertise in nonfiction, but Draw a Comic! feels like a hybrid text to me, a mix of informational fiction and active nonfiction.

The active nonfiction parts were my favorite. Draw a Comic! includes 5 comic book activities that are connected with a fictional narrative (that’s the informational fiction part.) The way that Coovert uses the images in the panels and the dialogue of the characters to give clear, step-by-step directions is something to admire. His clarity of storytelling and teaching is something I strive for.

I learned SO much from this text. I finally know what the T square I own is for! I also know I’ll be purchasing a long-reach stapler in the near future. (No idea what I’m talking about? Read the book to find out!)

If you’re teaching the TCRWP writing unit that Hareem Atif Khan (@hareematifkhan) and I wrote called Graphic Novels: Writing in Pictures and Words, I highly recommend this text as an additional resource. (…and before you ask, No, the unit hasn’t been published yet. Last I heard from Heinemann, 2023 was the expected release year.)

To wrap up, I’m excited to check out another Maker Comics book to see if they all live up to the quality of work of JP Coovert. Perhaps I should check out a topic in which I’m novice? Fix a Car! perhaps? I truly enjoyed Coovert’s cartooning and I can’t wait to read more of his work. So I checked out his website to order more of his work (and MAYBE a Rex I love comics pin). You should too!

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Nonfiction, but if you want to specific…hybrid text: informational fiction & active NF
  • Units of Study: nonfiction, active fiction, how-to, comic book/graphic novel
  • Grades: Fourth Grade, Fifth Grade, Middle School

Flamer Review

Creator: Mike Curato

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

“THIS BOOK WILL SAVE LIVES” reads the quote from Jarrett J. Krosoczka on the cover of Flamer and I couldn’t agree more. Growing up, I felt the same feelings that the protagonist, Aiden, feels in this book; the feeling of isolation, of being an outsider, or being “wrong” somehow. You have kids in your school that feel this way too. They NEED this book.

Aiden is a fully realized character. He struggles every day with his own self-worth and the burden of trying to fit in. Everything he does makes him stand out when all he wants to do is blend in. The rest of the characters flesh-out the world of Flamer; the hunky crush, the acquaintance who slowly becomes a friend, the well-meaning scoutmaster. The interactions between these characters feel so real, I think I may have actually had these exact conversations with people.

Curato uses several visual storytelling techniques of note. Throughout the story Aiden has several different fantasies or dreams. During these the panels no longer have the sharp corners of rectangular panels and instead have rounded corners. The gutters also become black during these dreams. The combination of these two techniques make it clear what is happening in the real world and what is in Aiden’s mind.

Color is also used to great effect. The art is black, white and red. Pay attention to the items that Curato chooses to make red; the letter, the knife, the flames. Does red always symbolize the same thing? Or does it shift from scene to scene?

I read Flamer in one sitting. I think you know several readers who will do the same thing. Be sure to check out Curato’s blog post about Flamer found here.

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Units of Study: Realistic Fiction, Identity, Growing Up,
  • Grades: Middle School, High School

Creator Conversations: Andrea Bell

A fun and insightful chat with illustrator and comic book artist Andrea Bell about her work and her process. To learn more about Andrea, check out her website, andreabelldraws.com.

Viewing Guide

The viewing guide below includes timestamps that will help you navigate the video. I’ve included my interview questions and links to texts Andrea refers to.

  • 1:24 How do you describe yourself professionally?
  • 2:16 How do you approach your independent & collaborative work in different ways?
  • 5:01 What does a graphic novel script look like?
  • 7:01 Andrea and I begin discussing thumbnails.
  • 9:44 What do you consider when you’re designing a well laid-out page?
  • 11:01 How does the size of a panel affect your visual storytelling?
  • 12:29 Andrea and I begin discussing lettering and balloon placement.
  • 14:41 Do you have advice for aspiring illustrators/comic book artists?
  • 15:32 Do you have any graphic novels that you recommend to others?
  • 16:00 Andrea mentions Spinning by Tillie Walden
  • 16:22 Andrea mentions This One Summer by Jillian & Mariko Tamaki
  • 17:04 Andrea and I discuss her new graphic novel, The Leak
  • 18:50 Andrea discusses her new project, Maker Comics: Conduct a Science Experiment!

The Leak Review

Creators: Kate Reed Petty & Andrea Bell

Publisher: First Second

“For the Love of Truth” is the subtitle of Kate Reed Petty & Andrea Bell’s The Leak and the story contained within successfully represents this motto.

I picked up The Leak based on my love of Andrea Bell’s artwork from her prior works Diary of a Fifth Grade Outlaw and her mini-comic Cap Quest that I purchased when I met her at a New York Comic-Con.

The story within is as well crafted as the art. Ruth Keller is an aspiring journalist who is thrilled when she discovers her brother’s new girlfriend, Sara, has an internship at the New York Times. Sara quickly takes on a mentorship role as Ruth learns about the journalistic oath.

Ruth is honestly one of my favorite heroines I’ve encountered recently. She is brash and impulsive, but she has good intentions at heart. Watching Ruth grow over the course of The Leak is so satisfying. You just keep rooting for her!

The story keeps you guessing. Just when you think you’ve predicted the ending, the unexpected happens. This story will pull you and your readers in. Definitely check it out!

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Realistic Fiction, Mystery
  • Units of Study: Journalism, Mystery, Realistic Fiction
  • Grades: Middle Grades, Early Middle School